A personal experience:
Like most industries, the IT world has its fair share of conventions. Most of them are the same; pretty boring, full of your typical IT geeks and the vendors catering to them. Think of Comic Con, but with computers instead of comic books.
Last week I spent 4 days in San Diego with 2,600 fellow IT nerds together to spaz out about the latest in the world of technology.
I was able to take in a Padre’s game, ride on scooters around the historic Gaslamp District and experience San Diego’s June gloom. (It isn’t always 70 and sunny!)
I had no intention of sharing my memories of this trip until I was working on something last night… stay with my here! I promise I’m making a point.
I was going through my notes of the new things I learned on my trip and was setting up a new monitor that would email me whenever someone remotely logged into a specific server. As I get to the part in the software to set this up, I see that it is already configured. Not only that, it is setup to send to ME as is the email! I had to have done it and forgot. My memory is horrific. I’ve known this for a while, but it appears to be getting worse by the year. So, I’m getting this down on paper now before I forget to tell anyone how great the experience was for me. Hopefully, in 6 months when I look back on this it’s as riveting as I hope it is for you now. I kid.
My goal going into this trip was to come back with one new idea. This could’ve been a new product or service to offer our clients. Or, a more efficient method of accomplishing a tedious task with which we currently struggle. There were over 90+ vendors available to speak with and over 2,600 MSPs (Managed Service Providers) from around the world to network.
Now, if you know me, you know that speaking with others is not one of my favorite things to do. Quite frankly, I’m not a big fan of people, let alone a crowd of them. More on this later, let’s get to the good stuff.
World’s Most Wanted Hacker
In the late 80s and early 90s, Kevin Mitnick was making a name for himself of as one of America’s hardest to catch criminals. He used his advanced hacking skills to gain access to some of the country’s largest cellular telephone and computer companies all the while staying one step ahead of the FBI. Although he claims to never profit from his crimes, he is credited of being the founder of what we know today as cybercrime. Good thing though, after serving his time, he now works to help Fortune 500 companies and governments protect their systems from people like himself. He owns a private security consulting firm that claims to have a 100% success rate at compromising his client’s defenses.
He was a keynote speaker on day one, shocking all of us with the ease of how he would bypass layer after layer of what we all thought was pretty impenetrable security.
By now you should know not to plug in a USB drive you find into your computer as it may have a virus or malware, right?
How about just don’t plug anything in anymore. Kevin proceeds to take what looks like an ordinary USB charging cable and plugs it into a laptop, leaving nothing plugged in the other side, just like you would if you were to have a cable connected to your computer to charge your phone perhaps. This is the victim’s computer. He then brings up his other computer on another monitor that shows a flashing cursor waiting to receive some data. This simulates the bad guy, waiting to collect the goods. He walks about 100 feet away from his laptop, pushes a button on a small receiver in his hand activating the malware hidden in the USB cable and milliseconds later the bad guys computer starts filling up with code. He shows us how he can then move around through the victim’s files and even view the victims camera.
Granted, this is more likely to be a targeting attack as the bad guy needs to activate the cable from a relativity close proximity, but still… pretty scary.
He had numerous other examples of how to overcome we all think is pretty good security:
- He showed how easy he could bypass two factor authentication when using SMS (text messaging) as the second factor.
- He demonstrated how quickly someone’s Office 365 email can become encrypted, simply by clicking on an innocent looking email.
- He opened my eyes to something I was not aware of: hackers embedding malware in Outlook calendar events. Pretty clever!
In the end, the security best practices that we MSPs preach and practice do work. The Miller Group has a list of over 400 items that we check on our client’s networks each month and we are always adjusting and adding to these. In the end, however, as Kevin pointed out, it is the human element that usually fails. A user will most always click on something. They will lean on the side of convenience over complexity when it comes to security. The bad guys know this and depend on it. Until this changes, they will always be a step ahead. For me, the silver lining is that I will always have a job.
Former CEO of Billion Dollar Company
I realize most of you will probably not have heard his name before. That is understandable for a lot of reasons:
- He is only 33
- The company he founded is only 12 years old
- They only sell to companies like mine.
Before I get into Austin, let me tell you a little bit about his company, Datto. The Miller Group uses dozens of vendors to help deliver IT services to our clients. When I came across Datto about 6 years ago, I had one of those “OMG” moments. I’ll simplify this and say they offer a backup solution (they don’t, it is so much more). 6 years ago, backups for our clients were a daily pain in the rear- something that was extremely important, but terribly unreliable. They were slow, hard to manage, and took a lot of our resources. Along comes Datto and this revolutionary new way to approach backups. We have never looked back.
- Nightly Backups – Usually full backups done only over the weekend
- Most are file level backups (not a snapshot of the server)
- Rarely an offsite option, if any
- Slow to recover from (days, sometimes weeks, to be back to whole)
- Administrative nightmare to manage
- Hourly, full Image backups (snapshot)
- Daily full image backup offsite
- Instant onsite virtualization
- Daily screenshot verification
- We sleep peacefully at night knowing no matter what happens we can get our clients back up and running in full in no time
That is why we got started with Datto 6 years ago. They haven’t stopped there. Since then they added that same technology to securing data in Office 365. This year, they announced the ability to protect a laptop/desktop to the cloud, independent of a backup device. They also provide simple WiFi and networking devices. Last year they purchased one of our other favorite vendors, the one we use for our main LOB application. Autotask (who picked me to meet President Clinton a few years back) and Datto have continued to push the envelope forward with advancements in technologies that help us help our clients.
This all started with a vision of one man, Austin. He has had numerous opportunities along the way to cash in and move on to something else. His promise was to always focus on providing the best product and services to what is called the ‘channel’, the MSPs. These companies provide IT services to small and mid-size businesses. He could have cut out the middleman and went straight to the end users. He could have sold his business quite a few times. But he remained focused. He believed in what he built and in the people that had helped him build it. He believed his company and his ideas would blossom best if nurtured by IT professionals, rather than be left to anyone that calls themselves a computer tech. It appears he made the correct choice. In 2016, Datto was valued at over 1 billion dollars.
But all good things eventually come to an end. In 2017, Datto was acquired by Vista, a technology focused investment firm. It is rumored that Austin fought to make sure that all his employees were given stock in the company as part of the deal. And then the following year, Austin stepped down as the CEO of Datto. He still serves on the board of directors. It is said that the decision to start a new path had to do in part with losing a close friend/ employee at an early age.
Over the years of going to these events I have gotten to know quite a few of the now 1,600 Datto employees. Although I think pretty highly of myself (just ask my wife), I do realize, I’m just a small fish in a big pond. I don’t know how they do it at Datto. It seems everyone knows me and makes me feel like I’m one of their best customers. And we are not just talking about my local rep and his boss (who are awesome by the way). The developers who are responsible for making the product have taken the time to share breakfast with me, quite a few of the executives know me by name, and I’m even Facebook friends with some people with titles like Vice President of this and Chief of that…
Why, why are you telling me all this, why do I care? Datto makes me feel special. They don’t need to. I would do business with them without it. Their product stands on its own. I’ve talked with quite a few partners and employees and they all have shared stories of how this starts with Austin. He is Datto. Austin isn’t the boss, he works the tech support phone lines. Austin could be found playing around in the employee break room all by himself at lunch. Heck, after giving a keynote speech last week he was the one that handed me my goodie bag back from behind a welcome desk staffed by 14 other Datto employees. If you didn’t know who he was, you wouldn’t have known the difference. He was running around with his head cut off, just like everyone else.
Great companies not only have great ideas, but great leaders. The Miller Group was robbed way too soon of ours. Mike Miller had all the same qualities as Austin. Mike performed all the grunt work. He loved getting his hands dirty. He was always “people first”, just like Austin. Both left behind great companies. Personally I feel fortunate as not only was I able to learn from Mike for over 15 years, but I am currently witnessing first hand the second generation of Millers operating in the family business. Mike’s two sons have some big shoes to fill, but they both have great starts to their careers and propelled the company forward. I’m grateful to be a part of their journey.
Party on an aircraft carrier
This was a first for me. First time on an aircraft carrier, let alone first time partying with 2,000 people on one, complete with catered dinner, huge selection of drinks, flight simulators, game section (washers, giant Jenga, arcade games, etc..) and a live band. Like I mentioned before, I’m not much for crowds, or people in general, however being able to network with others in my industry has proven invaluable over the years. I’ve been extremely lucky to meet some great people that I now call friends. From our sister company in San Diego, Spotlink, all the way across the world to the Netherlands and the fine folks that make up the Dutch MSP. The business insight that I have gained from our conversations over the years has helped The Miller Group grow, and personally I have some new friends. That is something I don’t take for granted.
Turns out the world really isn’t that big, at least not the MSP world. We all struggle with the same challenges. What I have learned over the years is that there are leaders and followers in the industry just like in life. The successful, more mature companies tend to be the leaders. They are not always looking to do the status quo. They are pushing the envelope, looking for new ways to solve old problems. I’ve been lucky to identify and align myself with some of these individuals early on. To learn from them and hopefully implement some of their insights and qualities into my work.
Yes, Snoop Dogg, at an IT conference!
It was a Tuesday morning, about 9 am. I’m in a large room with about 2,000 IT professionals (computers nerds). This is the last place I expect to see an impromptu, Snoop Dogg concert. And yet, there he was. Out of his signature cloud of smoke, he did his best to pump up the mostly middle-age, pale crowd. Being a child of the 80s, I was in heaven. Snoop was a direct product of N.W.A., a group whose debut album I can recite by heart.
I have to hand it to Datto. They know how to put on a show. Each year, they continue to raise the bar. Last year they had Sir Richard Branson and Robert Herjavec from Shark Tank on stage. The year before, we got to see the Mythbusters, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman.
This year YouTuber, Simone Giertz, spoke about how she created herself a career creating ‘shitty robots’. Her philosophy of ideas first, tools second, really hit home with me. Sometimes we focus to much on learning a craft or a trade instead of putting more energy up front into the issue we are trying to solve and working backwards from there. Identifying the tools we will need to reach the outcome we desire and then obtaining those skills as needed.
She also introduced, publicly for the first time, a new project she is just wrapping up. She is a big advocate of electric cars and tired of waiting for a manufacturer to come out with an electric truck. So she made her own out of a Tesla Model 3. You can watch her project here.
Finishing up the conference was keynote speaker Nancy Rademaker. Nancy’s speech was entertaining and informative, however in my opinion, things we all should already know. Nancy points out that in an ever-changing digital world, companies need to be always evolving, always looking forward. They need to focus on the customer experience. As our attention spans shorten, companies have less opportunities than ever to make an impression on their audience. They need to make the customer experience simple, friendly, and memorable.
The same goes for your employees she adds. As more jobs get automated and workers become more mobile, employees are looking for more than just a paycheck. They need to be engaged and heard, just like the customer.
Reflecting back, as obvious as her message may have appeared to me, it is an important one that I do think gets overlooked in the daily hustle of the business world… Making the customer and the employee the top priority in every decision needs to be built into every process we have.
The Miller Group received an unexpected award
Well, sort of. The MSP 501 is a yearly recognition of the top MSPs in the world. We have been recognized for the last 5 years and honestly, this year didn’t come as any surprise. The presentation is what was eye-opening. During one of the opening day keynotes the announced this year’s winners, not individually, as there are 501 of them, but they did flash the 200 companies that were present at the event. To put that in context, there were over 2,600 MSPs from all over the globe here, out of all of them, 200 were in the top 501. The Miller Group was one of them. I did happen to get a picture of our name on the big screen as proof!
This probably doesn’t mean much to our clients, however, among our peers, I can say this is a pretty big accomplishment. What is even more impressive is that we are able to achieve it based on our size. There are quite a few larger size MSPs, ones that have offices in multiple cities and staff that number in the hundreds. It is a result of the hard work our staff does on a daily basis. I truly do work with some smart, dedicated people.
I just turned 45. Sometimes I think of myself as just a kid. It’s really quite amazing to me to think that I am married to an amazing woman, I have two great teenage boys, we just built a house on some land that we own. I am a CEO of a company that has 20+ employees. How did I end up here? It is a week like last week that helps move me along the path. I have had many weeks like this. Meeting people that have helped me carve my path. Offered me guidance, advice, a warm smile, without asking for anything in return. Over the last couple years I have tried to make some steps to be ones of those people, to give back, to help the next person on their way up. I go out of my way to be there for my vendors to talk to their potential new clients. I have been on webinars with them and gone out on sales calls. I have offered up advice and my story to anyone who has asked, in an effort to help someone not make the same mistakes I have. I have been fortunate to have some wonderful people do that for me, I hope that I can help just one person the same.
I want to thank all the people at Datto that work so hard to put on events like DattoCon, that make me and everyone else feel so welcome and allow us to get so much out of our time there. From the great vendors like Warranty Master, ITGlue and CytraCom and awesome people that represent them, all of us working together with one goal in mind, to provide the best possible IT services and support to small and mid-size businesses. I am proud and humbled to be a part of this industry. I am one of those lucky ones that has never worked a day in his life.